Sunday's New York Times offers an explosive story of an aborted 2005 U.S. raid into Pakistan, a special forces operation designed to "snatch and grab" Ayman Al Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda leaders. The story, following July 2006 revelations that the CIA had previously disbanded its Bin Laden unit, gives lie to one of the central tenets of the so-called Bush Doctrine: no safe havens for terrorists.
The Times piece details Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld running roughshod over then CIA Director Porter Goss, scuttling the mission at the last moment even as the U.S. forces were boarding planes for the assault:
But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning.
Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.
This sad tale knocks out the last of the three legs of the wobbly Bush Doctrine. The calamitous invasion of Iraq and the global disdain for the ensuing American occupation destroyed one pillar, the neo-conservative love affair with preventive war. The carnage in Baghdad, the chaos in Beirut and the Hamas takeover of Gaza fatally undermined the second, Bush's evangelical fervor for democracy promotion. (The blind eye he turned towards Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and China, among others, didn't help Bush's credibility as a democracy crusader, either.) And now, the frailty of the Musharraf government, impeding action against Al Qaeda in Pakistan by either Islamabad or Washington, shows that the terrorists can in fact enjoy safe havens.
In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, a determined President Bush declared his "no safe havens" principle even as the World Trade Center towers still smoldered in lower Manhattan:
"We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
In this as in so many other arenas, George W. Bush was mugged by reality. His black and white worldview did not comport to the complexities on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or virtually anywhere. Musharraf's de facto truce agreement with Al Qaeda and its allies in the northwest tribal areas effectively tied his hands - and ours.
As the Times implies, the cancelled raid and limited missile strikes should lead President Bush's amen corner to reconsider its critique of Bill Clinton's pre-9/11 efforts to capture or kill Bin Laden. That, of course, will never happen. "Blame Bill" is all that remains of Republican policy, foreign or domestic.
As for the Bush Doctrine, as I wrote just three weeks ago, its short but unhappy life has come to an end. A bad idea whose time never came, its passing will not be mourned.
For more background, see: